Monday, July 2, 2012

(Santa Barbara Grand Jury) Public Trust Needs Rebuilding

Carol Benham/Common Sense and Candor | Posted: Sunday, July 1, 2012 12:00 am |

The Grand Jury Report on Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corp. has been public for a couple of weeks. A Lompoc resident recently set up a website with LHCDC information and published articles, and it includes the 16-page report (

It’s worth taking the time to read the report for those who haven’t. The report documents a massive failure of oversight by the city and county over the course of many years. The appendix, a chronological summary of 65 city and county communications to or from LHCDC, is a must read for those who want a better understanding of how this organization performed as if it was accountable to no one, not even to those who gave it millions of dollars of taxpayer funds.

The report confirms that legal responsibility for overseeing the use of taxpayer funds and enforcing compliance with regulations fell to the county and city, not federal funders.

It disproves the repeated false statements and charges LHCDC principals and supporters have made in their attempt to blame others for their gross mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility.

It states unambiguously that LHCDC overcharged tenants and continued to do so even when notified to cease.

It concludes: “In the end, neither the interests of the people in need of low-income housing nor the interests of the taxpayers were served by agencies exercising discretion in the enforcement of regulations. If attention had been paid and LHCDC had been forced to better manage its affairs in a timely fashion, low-income renters in Lompoc would have been much better served, and taxpayers would have been saved millions.”

Yet, even with all that the Grand Jury Report confirmed, there are chapters of this sordid tale that remain unanswered.

Why were there no consequences for LHCDC’s pattern of noncompliance and its blatant disregard of requests for data from funders charged with oversight? Why did both the city and county allow LHCDC to operate under a different set of rules than all other agencies? Did some officials overstep their authority or misuse their public position?

Because the Grand Jury Report is silent on why the city or county failed to act on the authority afforded them under law, we are left to wonder about the extent of the possible malfeasance of elected officials and administrative staff.

The report notes that LHCDC did not cooperate with the Grand Jury. That likely means the Grand Jury did not utilize its power of subpoena, leaving even more questions unasked and unanswered.

In the end, unfortunately, the Grand Jury Report revealed little beyond what has been known for some time and has been previously reported.

There are two more pieces of the puzzle being constructed. The county is undertaking a forensic audit of LHCDC’s missing audits, though it is many months from completion. When completed, the audit may help explain why LHCDC refused to submit an independent examination of its finances since 2006.

The city has hired a consultant to reconstruct the history of all loans, finally revealing the total amount of funds given to LHCDC by the city.

But neither of these reports will disclose why the city and county looked the other way and failed to act when action was necessary. There are pieces of this puzzle that can only be revealed by questions asked and answered under oath. They are not insignificant questions, and public trust in city and county officials cannot be restored with lingering questions of malfeasance, misuse of public funds and abuse of authority left unresolved.

When I first began asking questions of LHCDC’s principal players almost 18 months ago —before they stopped returning my phone calls —I was asked an identical question by two people: “Why are you doing this?”

It was apparently inconceivable to these two people that, after years of secrecy and behind the scenes maneuvering, someone would ask questions and publicly report their delinquent loans and derelict properties, exposing how they conducted their business.

My answer to them at the time was the same as it is today: Because I believe in the public’s right to know. Up to now, our elected officials have not demonstrated that same belief. They can change that, right now, by initiating a criminal investigation.

Lompoc resident Carol Benham is a former reporter and editor for the Lompoc Record and the Santa Maria Times. She can be reached at

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